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Is this correct? I often see "how many pairs of underwear", but this doesn't make sense. How is underwear a pair? There is only 1. I've googled and I've seen both "how much underwear" and "how many pairs of underwear". Which one is correct?

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Underwear, like trousers or jeans, are referred to as a pair, because it's a throwback to when pants (pantaloons) originally came in two pieces - a matching pair. A person would put on one leg, tie it around their waist, then put on the other leg and do the same.

For more information, there is an excellent thread in EL&U, which references the following text:

Before the days of modern tailoring, such garments, whether underwear or outerwear, were indeed made in two parts, one for each leg. The pieces were put on each leg separately and then wrapped and tied or belted at the waist (just like cowboys’ chaps). The plural usage persisted out of habit even after the garments had become physically one piece. However, a shirt was a single piece of cloth, so it was always singular.

Pants have obviously evolved, but the terminology still remains.

Therefore, "how many pairs of underwear" is correct usage. For example:

How many pairs of underwear are you packing for the trip?

I'm bringing five pairs of underwear with me.

That being said however, in question form, we can use much, e.g.

How much underwear should I bring?

you should bring five pairs of underwear.

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    Do you a reference for this fact? A pair of scissors doesn't follow that pattern, so I'm not fully convinced. – Octopus Jan 24 '17 at 6:36
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    If you asked me how much, I'd answer you with a unit of measure-- perhaps, "a pound or two." – Octopus Jan 24 '17 at 6:57
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    In my AmE, a "pair of underwear" is specifically a pair of underpants. "Underwear" by itself is at least as likely to refer specifically to underpants as to the general category. My answer to "how much underwear" would be "3 days worth", and let the questioner decide if that means bras, undershirts, etc. – Jeremy Nottingham Jan 24 '17 at 12:53
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    A pair of scissors doesn't follow that pattern Well, it does, imo. – TaW Jan 24 '17 at 13:14
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    @TaW Do you often say "how much scissor"? – Mr Lister Jan 24 '17 at 14:49
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It's perhaps worth adding that there is a discrepancy between American English and British English here. While in the former "underwear" can be used to mean a specific garment, so "pairs of underwear" makes sense for the reasons Mike gives, in British English "underwear" only has the more general meaning, and so a BrE speaker might say either "how much underwear" or "how many pairs of underpants" (or just "pairs of pants", which in BrE only refers to underwear).

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    As a native BrE speaker, I disagree: I would interpret "pair of underwear" as "pair of (under)pants". – AndyT Jan 24 '17 at 16:43
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    I (also a native BrE speaker) would probablly interpret it that way too but I would think it sounds strange. – Peter Green Jan 24 '17 at 20:25
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The word “underwear” is a mass noun that takes singular agreement (“your underwear is showing”) but there are a cluster of pluralia tantum underwear words. 11 Nouns That Only Have a Plural Form

Anyway, both are commonly used:

Then how much underwear and how many pairs of socks shall I put in? Last Watch

What type of place would tell you how many pairs of underwear to bring? The Boy with the Lampshade on His Head

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Many and much are used according to what sort of a noun they are referring to. There are two types, and they are called mass nouns and count nouns.

Count Nouns

These can be counted. Birds, apples, cell phones, etc.

These nouns are accompanied with "many".

  • I see many birds on the horizon.
  • The grocer sold many apples yesterday.
  • My science professor has too many cell phones.

Mass nouns

These occur in quantities that are measured rather than counted. Water, sugar, abstract ideas, etc.

These nouns are accompanied with "much".

  • There is much water in the ocean.
  • How much sugar would you like?
  • You argue too much!

Which category do you feel "underwear" belong to?

I would say, "How many pairs of underwear should I bring", or simply "How many underwear should I bring?"

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  • Just in case somebody argues that it's acceptable to ask "how many sugar", it is actually implied that you are asking about spoonfuls in that case, which are countable. – Octopus Jan 24 '17 at 6:47
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    While we're on the subject of mass nouns, let me just emphasise that in English, 'software' and 'code' are always mass nouns. (Despite any plurals you might find on Stack Overflow!) – peterG Jan 24 '17 at 12:35
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    @alephzero, I would tend to agree with peterG on that. Your example sentence is not correct English usage, imo. Although it may be a sign of a shift of language usage with the new generation. – Octopus Jan 24 '17 at 19:48
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    @alephzero Sorry, but no. Your suggestion is an example of what I meant. It should be, for example, "We tried three different versions of the code." (mass noun) or "We tried three different programs." (countable noun) – peterG Jan 24 '17 at 20:55
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    If someone pluralizes 'code' or 'software' non-ironically, it signals to me that they either aren't a programmer, or they're a non-native speaker. That's not how we talk. – Rob K Jan 24 '17 at 20:59
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(In European English,) 'Underwear' refers to bras (and often vests and socks) as well as underpants/knickers and a bras is not counted as a pair so the term 'pair of underwear' is a nonsense to this native speaker.

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    What on earth is "European English" and where do you come from to claim to be a "native speaker" of it? As a British English native speaker: Yes, "underwear" refers to all types of underwear; but "a pair of underwear" is a pair of underpants. – AndyT Jan 24 '17 at 16:42
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    @AndyT Maybe you haven't heard of "International English", a non-discriminatory word for the new English language, which includes all people that learned English as a second language, making them natives in "International English". I believe that in this language you can even use the plural form of underware, i.e. underwares (since the word wares is in the dictionary), and thus I can even ask you: "how many underwares are you using now?". – CPHPython Jan 24 '17 at 17:32
  • "is a nonsense " is nonsense and not a phrase that any native speaker of English would use. – Rob K Jan 24 '17 at 20:51
  • @AndyT European English is English spoken in Europe, in countries such as the UK and Ireland. – pickarooney Jan 25 '17 at 15:46
  • @Rob K broaden your horizons a litle. It's a perfectly cromulent expression used by native speakers the world over. You'll find it in articles in The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Australian... – pickarooney Jan 25 '17 at 15:51

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